Sunday, 25 September 2011

Catching Community

“We’re gonna have more fun and be less weird than the last two years combined.”

With that tongue in cheek promise “Community” returned for a third season, all singing, all dancing.

Over the course of two seasons creator Dan Harmon’s community college based comedy has brought us zombies, paintball, stop-motion breakdowns, copious pop-culture references and the most awesome blanket city you will ever witness on a TV screen.

What makes it truly remarkable though is that it has also brought us a number of the most likeable characters to be found anywhere in that bizarre alternate reality most sit-coms seem to exist in. Without them “Community” would grate on audiences; it’s ‘meta comedy’ self awareness and shameless love of pop culture references would end up putting off even the geekiest of fans. With them it becomes something incredible, a show which manages to be in many ways detached and yet so involving.

Focussing on the experiences of 7 students looking to make it through a particularly challenging community college experience who join together to form a suitably rag-tag study group, the show provides character development without feeling the need to spend every episode hammering the changes home.

There’s a whole range of American sit-coms that I love right now, I wrote about two of them here, but what makes “Community” stand out is its originality compared to all the direct descendents of “Friends” and “Frasier”. The majority of shows out there either rely on a group of improbably good-looking 20 somethings falling in and out of love, or a group of socially awkward but incredibly intelligent Americans screwing up but meaning well, and all those shows stubbornly but understandably refuse to acknowledge the influence or Ross and Rachel or Niles and Frasier.

“Community” openly compares itself to the myriad of films and TV shows, from pretty much every genre available, that influence each episode. It’s a move which I am sure has alienated some viewers over its lifetime, but one which led to me falling in love with it. The meta-element of the show threw me at first but it was also what initially hooked me; much as the “Scream” franchise has done for horror films, “Community” manages to parody many of the genre elements while producing one of the strongest examples of this particular brand of TV show. One of the key reasons it works, especially the parody elements, is that it’s such a loving parody; the huge majority of the pop-culture references are delivered with a clear fondness for the subject matter.

I’d been looking around for a new show to watch this summer, something I’d never watched before but heard good things about; it was between this, “Modern Family” and “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and I don’t have some deep or particularly logical reason why I settled on “Community” but decide I did and it turned out to be an uncharacteristically strong gut instinct.

It is definitely a geeky and distinctly self-aware show, but it also has real heart. There are three strongly written and superbly acted female characters who are so loveable that you end up wanting a stereotypically happy ending for all of them whenever the show does draw to a close. There’s a pop-culture obsessed and often borderline delusional guy who is so charming and warm that he makes the geeks of “The Big Bang Theory” look like jerks. A former jock turned geek who is not only the most honest and open of the group but also capable of some of the funniest freak outs ever committed to screen. Even the objectively more dislikeable characters, the ones who are given the darker decisions, motives and attitudes, manage to make you root for them through the subtle touches, depth of characterisation and charming acting.

It is a show which finds that tough to achieve balance; it manages to parody without ever being a parody show.

I get the impression the show is yet to make it big in the UK, I know I found it hard enough to find the two seasons that have been made already and the region 2 DVD of season 1 is only available to pre-order now. It was shown on Viva, a channel more known for music videos than top rate comedies, but I hope E4 or another mainstream channel picks up the show, because it deserves to get a lot more attention than it has.

If you do give it a go, make sure you stick with it for more than 2 or 3 episodes, it takes a while to get used to the quite individual style of the show, but if you persevere you will be rewarded in episode 23 by one of the great sit-com episodes ever when a paintball game gets out of control and ends up involving the entire school. Rarely have I ever watched an episode of any show where it is so clear the writers, director, producer and actors are all enjoying themselves quite so much. Plus who hasn’t imagined their school becoming a war zone during a particularly dull science lesson.

Just me?

The possibly “Glee” baiting opening to season 3 was clever but it would be a damn shame if “Community” did end up being less weird this season; the joyful embracing of all things weird and geeky is what made me fall in love with the show. I watch “Community” and see links to quite literally half of my DVD collection, there was even a "Dr Who" reference this week, while enjoying some of the sharpest writing around.

It’s a show which is clever, funny and when it wants to be, incredibly sweet; what more can you ask for from a 21st century sit-com.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Terrific Television

Throughout my life different things have offered me comfort and distraction. Music is a constant but it varies in importance and it isn’t a dominant thing in my life right now. I go through phases of being able to watch film after film but this summer that hasn’t been the case,I've still been more of a film geek than most people probably are/have time to be, but by my standards I've not been too addicted. The same goes for reading and to an extent writing, but neither of them have been particularly prevalent in the last year or so. No this summer it has been TV that I have retreated to on a regular basis and more specifically American shows.

I’m going to devote an entire blog post to my newest discovery, “Community”, but I’m going to do a roundup of the other shows, new and old, which have been keeping me going throughout this summer.

This week the 7th season of “How I Met Your Mother” started airing; I’ve explained before the reasons that I love that show so much and I’m excited to see where they go in what seems likely to be the penultimate season of the show. I don’t want to talk too much in terms of actual plot developments for those who are not yet up to date with the show and intend to catch up, but I think that within this season we will finally see Ted meet the fabled mother.

On that note I feel a slightly odd sensation of pity for the actress who has that role, both through the hints at her character and the strength of several of Ted's love interests over the course of the show, it's going to be a tough ask for her to live up to the role. Plus considering the romantic gestures and stories those previous women have been involved in, the writers are really going to have to write a pretty intense and epic romance for it to feel justified that she is who Ted and the show's audience have been waiting for. Over the summer I watched all 6 seasons again and it's remarkable how well the show stands up to repeat viewings, a compliment that is rightly always paid to "Friends" and therefore high praise in my view.

Also this week has seen “The Big Bang Theory” return for a 5th season; it’s not my favourite show in the world, at times feeling a little one dimensional in terms of real character development/depth but it does however have one of the best characters in any current sit-com, Sheldon Cooper, the pinnacle of the incredibly intelligent but socially awkward character type. He carries the show in a lot of episodes, giving it momentum and the majority of the laugh out loud lines. Having watched the last season again over the past few weeks I'm definitely looking forward to the coming season, though not with the same intensity that I anticipate "How I Met Your Mother".

In terms of dramas there have been three which have particularly stood out over the course of this summer. Firstly there is “The Pacific”, the Spielberg produced WW2 drama about the battles for the islands of the Pacific ocean. Incredibly intense and exhilarating, the show manages to be entertaining and action packed while also looking at the psychological impact the brutality of warfare has on the young men that fight and survive. If Joseph Mazzello, who plays the youngest of the central protagonists, Alabama born Eugene Sledge, doesn't end up making it big as a Hollywood actor it's a damn shame because even amongst a strong cast he stands out.

Though not quite on the same level as that, the other two shows have also kept me entertained throughout these months. “Game of Thrones”, the swords and fantasy tale of warring families and supernatural threats which stars Sean Bean, is not ground-breaking but it has a great sense of scale and manages to convey complex political manoeuvring alongside some exciting sword fights and pitched battles.

Moving from fantasy to sci-fi, the final drama I want to mention is “Falling Skies”. Set 6 months after a successful invasion of Earth by an alien race the show details the efforts of a resistance cell in America fighting to protect a group of civilians and strike back against the invaders whenever possible. It made a nice change to watch something about an alien invasion where it was clear that the humans have been defeated rather than just as all seemed lost discovering a surprise weakness in the aliens. By also investigating what the alien race would be like as an occupying force it gives more depth to the species; they have motivations and emotions that go beyond the normal ‘kill everyone’ fare of the alien invasion genre. It’s far from perfect with some frustratingly generic characters and uninspired acting, but the concept and a few strong central performances saw me consume the 10 episodes of season 1 in just over a week.

I can't guarantee whether TV will remain as my first choice escape from reality over the next few months, but it has definitely helped pass a comparatively uneventful summer with a minimum of boredom.

Monday, 12 September 2011

47 Days

I feel like I should explain the fairly sustained absence of blog posts over the past couple of months. After more than 100 consecutive daily posts BT decided they were sick of me rambling on and took the drastic step of taking away my home's internet, on demand TV and phone line. They claimed it was just a technical fault but if they’d simply asked me to stop posting I would have, there was no need for them to react quite so badly.

As it panned out we were without their services for a good 3 weeks and as a sign of how internet dependent I am, they were painfully long weeks. It started off as the simple frustration of being disconnected, not being up to the date with social or global news, but after a week you start to become aware of all the little things that the internet provides us with. After the 15th time that you see someone in a TV show that you recognise from something you watched years ago, you begin to truly appreciate the wonder of IMDB and Wikipedia. The same goes for songs and Youtube, it takes surprisingly few days before the question of whether you’ve heard so and so’s latest song becomes incredibly annoying. Then there’s TV; I pretty much never watch a show at the broadcast time, I’m utterly used to watching a show when and where I want after it’s TV showing and the realisation that I had to rearrange my plans around when a show was on came as a bit of a shock.

I’m happy to concede that so far as the blog was concerned I was actually a little glad of the enforced hiatus at first; though I was happy I’d been able to keep up the daily posts for so long it was beginning to feel like a chore rather than something I wanted to do, and until I am being paid for this blog I don’t want to write if I’m not enjoying it. However the delay has stretched beyond the period I didn’t have an internet connection and there are a couple of reasons for that.

After 3 weeks and after watching what felt like every DVD in my house, BT felt they’d punished us enough and internet was restored. However the next day I was offered a paid week at the Derbyshire Times, the paper at which I did a week of work experience at earlier in the summer. The week was great but working a full day’s work after a summer of inaction left me with little energy to restart the blog.

The fortnight or so between the week at the paper and Sunday’s post can be explained by a combination of laziness and uncertainty. The laziness is simply a product of me being me, but the uncertainty is a little more complex. After such a long break I wanted the first post to matter, to be something which stood on its own rather than be either something trivial which seemed to continue where I left off without explanation or this kind of post where I justify the absence without any clear sign I intended to post more.

9/11 and the whole incredibly complex range of thoughts and emotions it triggers was the perfect reason to restart the blog. It was a topic worthy of an isolated post, something I care a great deal about and an ideal way to return to my melodramatic but well meant rambling. So 47 days after the last post, about a music festival in Sheffield, I'm back and though I have no intention of resuming posting every day, I hope to write reasonably frequently from now on.

Today’s song is one I rediscovered my love for during the time away, a song from an album which provided the soundtrack for the majority of the time I was writing my story a couple of years ago.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Day of Remembrance

The 9/11 attacks will be one of the defining events of my lifetime, both historically and personally.

The historic importance of the terrorist atrocities committed on American soil that day is well documented and people across the world are still experiencing the aftershocks of those events, through the wars fought in part because of them and the laws that were passed after them.

However on a personal level it will always carry a huge amount of importance that goes beyond the socio-political ramifications of Al-Qaeda attacking the American mainland. The 11th of September 2001 was the day that, as cheesy/melodramatic as this sounds, I lost some of my innocence about the wider world.

I was 10 years old, coming home from school when my best friend’s mum told us that America had been attacked. I doubt I even really understood what that meant when she said it, but I went home and sat down in front of the TV on my own and watched the news for around 4 hours, trying to understand what had happened and more importantly why.

I’d already had some exposure to the cruelty humans are capable of through my already well developed fascination with WW2, but this was different. At that age events 60 years ago may as well be 600, they’re so detached from the life I was living and to some degree they may as well have been fictional stories I was reading. This was different, I sat and watched the events unfolding live, seeing the confusion, the panic and most of all the destruction.

I wanted to try and understand what the news readers meant when they talked about concepts like religious extremism, terrorism and martyrdom. That September day woke me up to some of the realities of the world; the fact that killing based on religion, politics or just hatred wasn’t some historical phenomenon but something that was still happening around me.

It wasn’t an immediate shift but I know both from memory and my parent’s assurance that I took a growing interest in politics from then on, an interest that has now led me to study politics at university.

The 10 years since the attack have seen more events that like 9/11 have had huge political ramifications but also played a huge part in forming the current 20 year old version of me; Afghanistan and Iraq, 7/7 and the Oslo shootings, Obama’s election and the Arab Spring, but none of them will ever have that same power as the day I sat and watched New York under attack on the BBC.

Though the 10 year old me wouldn’t have been able to express most of this, especially the wider desire to understand how people could carry out acts of terrorism, take so many innocent lives and believe they were right to do so with such certainty, that day expanded my awareness and my inquisitive nature in a way no other has. A decade later, I've consumed countless books, articles and TV documentaries on the subject and I sit here on the 11th of September 2011 aware that I still don’t fully understand the events I watched unfold that afternoon or the motives behind them. I could list a whole range of political, religious and social factors that may or may not have had an influence on that tragic day, but the truth is that I doubt I will ever understand the mind-set that could lead to what I saw on that TV screen. I don’t think I want to either, 9/11 may have changed how I viewed the world, chipped away at the shiny veneer with which you look on life as a child but I don’t think the actions making sense would bring me any comfort.

Memories fade over time and even a day as formative as 9/11 isn't immune to that; I can't guarantee I remember all the things I thought and the emotions I felt, I can only write about the day as I remember it and from what my parents have told me about my reaction. However one thing I clearly remember is the anger that filled me that afternoon. It was a simpler and purer anger than I am able to muster now. Modern disasters and atrocities still make me angry, but it is a more complex feeling, anger diluted by a knowledge of the complex motives and various groups that might be responsible, aware that in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries no country or religion comes out smelling entirely of roses. I'm also more aware of and fearful about the repercussions, the responses whether foreign or domestic that can follow a bomb attack or shooting. The adult me sees the million shades of grey, on that 2001 afternoon I saw only black and white and it granted me a righteous anger, assured of who the good guys and the bad guys were, who were the heroes and who the super villains. I don't know whether I'll ever feel that mix of confusion, sadness and anger again, it's hard to imagine a situation that the current, politically aware me could view with that same cocktail of emotions.

9/11 changed the world and to varying degrees will have impacted on each and everyone of us in the years since. My thoughts today are with the families of those who died on 9/11 and with everyone who has lost loved ones at least in part due to the actions of those terrorists in the decade since.